How important is legacy status in college admissions?

According to the study, by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, applicants to a parent’s alma mater had, on average, seven times the odds of admission of nonlegacy applicants. Those whose parents did graduate work there or who had a grandparent, sibling, uncle or aunt who attended the college were, by comparison, only twice as likely to be admitted.


Mr. Espenshade pointed out that legacy status is just one of many possible advantages.

“We did a paper that found that if you are an athlete, you have 4.2 times the likelihood of admission as a nonathlete,” he said. “The advantages for underrepresented minorities are pretty big, too.”

Mr. Hurwitz said applicants with the highest SATs got the biggest legacy benefits.

Among the 30 colleges, the legacy advantage varied enormously: one college was more than 15 times as likely to accept legacy applicants, while at another, the effect was insignificant.

Source: New York Times

I found this piece on CalTech to be an interesting contrast:

…throughout its history Caltech has never been interested in reaching out in any special way to alumni children, and according to one estimate, less than 2 percent of its current undergraduate students have a parent who attended the university. This compares with many other elite private colleges and universities where legacy students comprise as much as 10-15 percent of each entering class (at Notre Dame the figure is close to one-quarter).

In fact, Caltech seems to be as close to a pure meritocracy as you can get:

The statistics on Caltech’s students and faculty are simply spellbinding. An entering Caltech freshman last year who received a 770 on the math SAT would be exceeded in this area by three-quarters of his fellow entering freshmen. Many Caltech freshmen got a perfect 800 on their math SAT, while a near-perfect 1560 combination score placed an incoming freshmen at only the 75th percentile of his entering classmates. A combined SAT score of 1470 (the 99th percentile by national standards) placed an entering Caltech freshman at only the 25th percentile among his fellow students. (At Harvard and Princeton, by contrast, the 25th percentile is reached by a score of only 1380). All recent Caltech undergraduates have scored 700 or above on the math SAT, and far from being a bunch of inarticulate science and math geeks, the vast majority have scored over 700 on the English verbal SAT as well…

What this means is that at Caltech, there are no dumb jocks, dumb legacies, or dumb affirmative action students. It is clear from its published statistics that the non-academic criteria that preoccupy admissions committees at all other elite universities count for little at this beacon of pure meritocracy. Perhaps the most striking difference from all other elite universities — including institutions like MIT and the University of Chicago which forgo athletic recruitment — is Caltech’s complete indifference to racial balancing. In a state and a region of the country with the largest Hispanic population, Caltech’s entering freshmen class in 2008 was less than 6 percent Hispanic (13 out of 236). The unwillingness to lower standards for a larger black representation is even more striking — less than 1 percent (2/236) of Caltech’s 2008 entering freshmen were listed as “non-Hispanic black”. This “underrepresentation” of blacks and Hispanics, of course, was more than made up for by the huge “overrepresentation” of Asians. Only 4 percent of the U.S. population, Asians made up a whopping 40 percent of the incoming freshmen class in 2008, a slightly larger proportion than the 39 percent figure for whites. Applicants to Caltech are clearly seen as representing only themselves and their own individual merit and achievement, not their race or their ethnic group. As a professor at Caltech who has taught there for many years explained to me in an email, “We try, like our competitors, very, very hard to find, recruit, and nurture underrepresented minorities but we won’t bend our standards.”

Just as the Olympic committee and the elite sports teams in America care nothing about one’s academic achievement when deciding who makes the team, so Caltech cares little about athletic ability when choosing its student body. Its indifference to athletic performance is well reflected by the fact that its men’s basketball team in recent years had a 207-game losing streak, its women’s basketball team had a 50-game losing streak, and men’s soccer team lost 201 games in a row.

Caltech article via Ben Casnocha’s interesting Delicious feed.

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